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H.L. v. Matheson (1981)

In Depth


In 1974, the Utah Legislature enacted a statute requiring a physician to notify, if possible, the parents or guardian of an unmarried minor before performing an abortion upon her.  In 1978, an unmarried pregnant minor filed a lawsuit in state court against the Governor of Utah and the Attorney General challenging the statute on federal constitutional grounds.  The minor brought the lawsuit on her own behalf and on behalf of a class of similarly situated minors.  Following an abbreviated evidentiary hearing, the trial court upheld the statute and dismissed the plaintiff's complaint.  The Supreme Court of Utah unanimously affirmed the trial court's judgment.  Plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Statute Under Review

To enable the physician to exercise his best medical judgment [in considering a possible abortion], he shall:

(1) Consider all factors relevant to the well-being of the woman upon whom the abortion is to be performed including, but not limited to,

(a) Her physical, emotional and psychological health and safety,

(b) Her age,

(c) Her familial situation.

(2) Notify, if possible, the parents or guardian of the woman upon whom the abortion is to be performed, if she is a minor or the husband of the woman, if she is married.

Utah Code Ann. § 76-7-304.

The Court's Decision

By a six-to-three vote, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of § 76-7-304(2) and affirmed the judgment of the Utah Supreme Court.

The Court's Reasoning

Chief Justice Burger wrote the majority opinion for the Court.  At the outset of his opinion, Chief Justice Burger noted that the minor "sought to represent a class consisting of unmarried 'minor women who are suffering unwanted pregnancies and desire to terminate their pregnancies but may not do so' because of their physicians' insistence on complying with § 76-7-304(2)."  H.L. v. Matheson, 450 U.S. at 401 (quoting plaintiff's complaint).  For reasons that she did not disclose in her complaint and would not disclose at the evidentiary hearing, plaintiff asserted that she should be allowed to proceed with the abortion without notifying her parents, an opinion which was shared by a social worker she had consulted.  Id. At that hearing, plaintiff's counsel objected to any inquiry by the State into his client's reasons for not wanting to notify her parents and asserted that "[t]he only constitutionally permissible prerequisites for performance of an abortion . . . were the desire of the girl and the medical approval of the physician."  Id. at 403-04.  The trial court sustained the objection, concluded that the plaintiff was an appropriate representative of the class she purported to represent and construed § 76-7-304(2) to require the physician to notify the minor's parents "if it is physically possible."  Id. at 404.  So construed, the statute did interfere with the constitutional rights of the minor.  Accordingly, the trial court dismissed plaintiff's complaint.  Id.

In affirming the trial court's judgment, the Utah Supreme Court stated that "the statute serves 'significant state interest[s]' that are present with respect to minors but absent in the case of adult women.  Matheson, 450 U.S. at 404 (quoting Utah Supreme Court's opinion).  The state supreme court held that "notifying the parents of a minor seeking an abortion is 'substantially and logically related' to the . . . factors set out in § 76-7-304(1) because parents ordinarily posses information essential to a physician's exercise of his best medical judgment concerning the child.' " Id. at 405 (quoting opinion).   The court also concluded that "encouraging an unmarried pregnant minor to seek the advice of her parents in making the decision of whether to carry her child to term promotes a significant interest in supporting the important role of parents in child-rearing."  Id.  Because the statute allows no veto power over the minor's decision to obtain an abortion, "it does not unduly intrude upon a minor's rights." Id. Finally, in interpreting the words, "if possible" in § 76-7-304(2), the Utah Supreme Court held that "the physician is required to notify parents 'if under the circumstances, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, he can ascertain their identify and location and it is feasible or practicable to give them notification.'" Id. (quoting opinion).  The court added that " 'the time element is an important factor, for there must be sufficient expedition to provide an effective opportunity for an abortion.' " Id.

In her appeal to the Supreme Court, the plaintiff challenged § 76-7-304(2) on its face.  She argued that the statute "is overbroad in that it can be construed to apply to all unmarried minor girls, including those who are not mature and emancipated."  Matheson, 450 U.S. at 405 (setting forth plaintiff's argument).  The Court declined to reach that question, however, because plaintiff never alleged or offered any evidence that either she or any member of the class she represented was mature or emancipated.  Id. at 405-06.  The trial court found that plaintiff was an unmarried fifteen-year old living at home and dependent upon her parents for her support.  Id. at 406.  That finding , in the Court's judgment, did not afford a sufficient basis for concluding that she was either mature or emancipated.  Id.  Nor did the plaintiff explain why she did not want to notify her parents.  Accordingly, there was no basis for concluding that an abortion without notification to her parents would have been in her best interests.  The only issue before the Court was "the facial constitutionality of a statute requiring a physician to give notice to parents, 'if possible,' prior to performing an abortion on their minor daughter, (a) when the girl is living with and dependent upon her parents, (b) when she is not emancipated by marriage or otherwise, and (c) when she has made no claim or showing as to her maturity or as to her relations with her parents."  Id. at 407.

Chief Justice Burger emphasized that the Utah statute mandated parental notice, not consent, and, therefore, was distinguishable from the parental consent statutes struck down in Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976), and Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622 (1979).  Matheson, 450 U.S. at 408 (for an analysis of the constitutional issues decided in Danforth and Bellotti, please see the summaries for those cases).  Although a State "may not constitutionally legislate a blanket, unreviewable power of parents to veto their daughter's abortion, a statute setting out a 'mere requirement of parental notice' does not violate the constitutional rights of an immature, dependent minor."  Id. (quoting Bellotti, 443 U.S. at 640 (Op. of Powell, J.)).  As applied to immature and dependent minors, "the statute plainly serves the important considerations of family integrity and protecting adolescents . . . ."  Id. at 411.  In addition,

the statute serves a significant state interest by providing an opportunity for parents to supply essential medical and other information to a physician.  The medical, emotional, and psychological consequences of an abortion are serious and can be lasting; this is particularly so when the patient is immature.  An adequate medical and psychological case history is important to the physician.  Parents can provide medical and psychological data, refer the physician to other sources of medical history, such as family physicians, and authorize family physicians to give relevant data.

Id. Utah's statute "is reasonably calculated to protect minors in [plaintiff's] class by enhancing the potential for parental consultation concerning a decision that has potentially traumatic and permanent consequences." Id. at 412.

According to Chief Justice Burger, the mere possibility that "the requirement of notice to parents may inhibit some minors from seeking abortions is not a valid basis to void the statute as applied to [plaintiff] and the class properly before us."  Matheson, 450 U.S. at 413.  "The Constitution does not compel a state to fine-tune its statutes so as to encourage or facilitate abortions.  To the contrary, state action 'encouraging childbirth except in the most urgent circumstances' is 'rationally related to the legitimate governmental objective of protecting potential life.'" Id (quoting Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 279, 325 (1980).

Apparently advancing an equal protection claim, the plaintiff claimed that the constitutionality of § 76-7-304(2) was undermined "because Utah allows a pregnant minor to consent to other medical procedures without formal notice to her parents if she carries the child to term." Matheson, 450 U.S. at 412 (summarizing plaintiffs' claim).  The Court rejected this claim, noting that "a [S]tate's interests in full-term pregnancies are sufficiently different to justify the line drawn by the statutes."  Id.  (citation omitted).  Moreover, "[i]f the pregnant girl elects to carry her child to term, the medical decisions to be made entail few-perhaps none-of the potentially grave emotional and psychological consequences of the decision to abort." Id. at 412-13.

Neither the plaintiff nor any member of the class she represented claimed to be mature or emancipated.  Nor did she or any member of her class claim (or offer evidence) that notification of her parents of her intention to obtain an abortion would not be in her best interests.  Accordingly, "[m]embers of the particular class now before us have no constitutional right to notify a court in lieu of notifying their parents."  Matheson, 450 U.S. at 412 n. 22.  "This case," therefore, "does not require us to decide in what circumstances a state must provide alternatives to parental notification."  Id.

The Concurring And Dissenting Opinions

Justice Powell, joined by Justice Stewart, concurred in Chief Justice Burger's opinion, but wrote separately to emphasize that the Court's decision left open "the question whether § 76-7-304(2) unconstitutionally burdens the right of a mature minor or a minor whose best interests would not be served by parental notification," and to reiterate the views he expressed in his plurality opinion in Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622 (1979).  Matheson, 450 U.S. at 414 (Powell, J., concurring).

Justice Stevens concurred in the judgment of the Court.  In Justice Stevens' view, the appeal presented the broader question as to whether the State may require parental notice whenever an unmarried minor seeks an abortion.  Matheson, 450 U.S. at 420-21 (Stevens, J., concurring in the judgment).  In his opinion, it may do so.  Id. at 421-25.

Justice Marshall, joined by Justices Brennan and Blackmun, dissented.  In Justice Marshall's opinion, the plaintiff (or at least the class she represented) had standing to challenge the notice statute on broader grounds than those recognized by the Court.  Matheson, 450 U.S. at 426-33 (Marshall, J., dissenting).  Based on that standing, he would have found § 76-7-304(2) unconstitutional because the requirement of parental notice in all cases was not narrowly tailored to promote significant state interests.  Id. at 441-54.

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